Sunday 18 December 2011

Meet The Quokkas

[Glimpses of South West W.A. - Part 2]

A quokka on Rottnest Island, Western Australia 

No doubt Paul McCartney only intended it as a witty one-liner. But when he called this place “the rottenest island I’ve ever been on”, he was neither the first nor the last to give Rottnest Island a bad name.

It started with Dutch sailors who bumped into the West Australian coastline, sometimes literally, in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Seeing the marsupial quokkas in large numbers on this island, they called it “Rottnest”, meaning rat’s nest. How they mistook a 3-4kg hopping marsupial for a rat is beyond me. But then I have never been at sea for months or years at a time. It does strange things to men.

So “Rat’s Nest” it became, and that was just the start of its ignominy. In the late 19th century the island, about 5km off the coast, became infamous as a largely Aboriginal prison. On our visit we hear stories about Wadjemup, “place across the water” in the Noongar language, from Lennie, a Noongar man.

He tells us how the Rottnest prison, built using mainly Aboriginal prisoner labour, held large numbers of Aboriginal men and boys. Many were imprisoned for breaking laws they could not even comprehend. As we look over the water towards the mainland, Lennie asks us to imagine how those men would have felt when they could see their home camp fires by night.

Dark past: a holding cell on Rottnest Island 

I am far from agreeing with the ex-Beatle about the island. It is a beautiful place, with miles of stunning beaches and coastline lapped by the azure tints of the Indian Ocean. And it has a fascinating history and an enviably laid-back feel to it. But the fraught and under-told Aboriginal history does sit awkwardly alongside the “million miles from care” tourism tag that “Rotto” – as most locals call it – carries.

There are other unacknowledged discrepancies like this in the west. It appears to be feeling little of the economic uncertainty hitting the east of Australia. Perhaps the enjoyment of prosperity in an enviably beautiful place is able to paper over cracks that might elsewhere be acknowledged.

I had earlier heard stories of the cruel and ignorant treatment of quokkas on Rottnest. During drunken end-of-year trips to the island, local youths had invented quokka soccer, a “game” that included these comely little marsupials being kicked to death “for fun”. It made international news in 2003, after which local authorities vowed to crack down on such behaviour.

A collage of scenes from Rottnest Island 

Despite their maltreatment, the quokkas on Rottnest aren’t fazed by human presence. I stand and watch a group resting in the shade of a shrub. Occasionally one hops out to prod and snuffle at the ground. To my Tasmanian eyes it is like a smaller version of our pademelon. Its movements, its pear-shape, its tapered snout, are all similar to my back-yard “paddies”. Apart from size, only its sandier colouring and noticeably more rounded ears are standout differences.

I stand quietly watching, taking the odd photograph, but mostly simply marvelling at the compact completeness of this wee beast. Its sweetly furred face, set with dark liquid eyes and a matching snout tip, would surely beguile anyone with a scintilla of creature feeling.

I consider again how authorities have responded to quokka cruelty. Somehow their message not to get “blotto on Rotto” seems as much to encourage as to discourage the kind of drunkenness that unleashes the dumb brute inside of us. Or is that being unfair to brutes?

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